Talladega, AL (SportsNetwork.com) - It's going to be a wild weekend of racing for NASCAR, as the Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series are at Talladega Superspeedway.
Sprint Cup Series
Aaron's 499 - Talladega Superspeedway - Talladega, Ala.
Every time the Sprint Cup Series competes at Talladega Superspeedway, you can always expect the unexpected.
Now you can look forward to more unpredictability at NASCAR's longest oval -- 2.66 miles in length.
Qualifying here used to be mundane, taking as long as three hours to complete with single-car runs during the session. Thanks to NASCAR's new knockout style of qualifying, that will no longer the case at this track.
This will be the first time knockout qualifying is used for a restrictor-plate race in NASCAR's premier series. The starting lineup for the first restrictor- plate event of the season, the Daytona 500, was determined by its traditional format -- time trials and then the twin qualifying races at Daytona (Budweiser Duel).
Saturday's qualifying at Talladega, scheduled for 1 p.m. ET, is figured to be just as wild and exciting as the race itself. FOX Sports recently announced it is moving its television coverage of Talladega qualifying from FOX Sports 2 to network TV. It will be the first time a non-Daytona qualifying session airs on FOX.
"Qualifying this Saturday has the potential to be one of the most exciting sessions of the season," said Jeff Gordon, a four-time Cup Series champion and six-time race winner at Talladega. "It's definitely going to be a learning experience on where to position yourself to get the best draft with the most speed. You can talk about a plan ahead of time, but that plan may completely change when the session starts."
The new qualifying format pits drivers against each other in three segments, since Talladega is greater than 1.25 miles in length. Racetracks that measure less than 1.25 miles feature just two segments.
The first qualifying segment at Talladega will feature the entire field (47 teams are entered) in a 25-minute session, and after a five-minute break, the top-24 drivers will advance to the second round, which will be 10 minutes of on-track action. The fastest 12 will move to the final five-minute dash, with the driver posting the quickest lap earning the pole position for Sunday's 500-mile race.
NASCAR used its revised qualifying format at a restrictor-plate track for the first time in February when the Nationwide Series had its season-opener at Daytona. However, rain halted the session there before the first segment was completed. Rookie driver Dylan Kwasniewski had the quickest lap when the segment was stopped and therefore awarded the pole. Qualifying for the Camping World Truck Series race at Daytona was washed out.
Drivers and teams aren't really sure what to expect in qualifying. In fact, some fear they might be caught up in a big wreck if one were to happen during the session.
"I thought about just going home and starting in the back," Kevin Harvick jokingly said. "It's going to be exciting to say the least. There is only one way to get a good lap and that is to catch the pack and have four or five cars lined up behind you. We have already kind of experienced this once, and that is when we went to Talladega last year. I believe it was the first race when everybody knew it was going to rain on qualifying day."
Carl Edwards was awarded the pole for last year's spring race at Talladega since he had the fastest lap overall in practice.
Edwards is looking forward to Saturday's qualifying here and thinks its going to be one heck of a show for race fans.
"If I weren't in it, I would be tuned in to watch because it will be entertainment," Edwards said. "The only time we have had to do that at Talladega was last year. We knew it was going to rain qualifying out, so everyone was trying to post the fastest time. It was insanity. We ended up on the pole, which was great, but we almost wrecked the race car."
Like all other drivers, Edwards is concerned what might happen when running in a tight pack of cars during qualifying.
"I have a feeling that it might be more dangerous than the race from a tearing the race cars up standpoint," he noted. "I really don't know what to expect. I am glad we are in the position we are in with points and we have a win [Bristol] already, because it is going to be interesting."
There have been eight different pole winners in nine Sprint Cup races this season. Qualifying for last weekend's race at Richmond was rained out, with rookie Kyle Larson earning the pole since he was quickest in practice.
Aaron's 312 - Talladega Superspeedway - Talladega, Ala.
Regan Smith has become the master of restrictor-plate racing in the Nationwide Series.
Smith, who is in his second full-season as driver of the No. 7 Chevrolet for JR Motorsports, has two restrictor-plate race victories within the past year. He won the 2013 spring race at Talladega Superspeedway and scored the victory in this year's Nationwide season-opener at Daytona International Speedway.
Since driving for JRM, Smith has recorded three top-10 finishes in four restrictor-plate races. He has led a total of 66 laps in those events and earned an average finish of 6.0. Smith placed eighth and 14th in last year's races at Daytona.
"I enjoy coming to Daytona and Talladega," Smith said. "I don't come to these places, thinking, 'Oh, man, we got to go draft and we got to be in a big pack.' I look at it as a challenge. I look at it as mentally I got to do things differently this weekend and I've got to be one move ahead of my competitors. I have to be thinking that far down the road before it happens, and I like that. I like that style of racing where you're constantly thinking."
Nationwide is at Talladega this weekend for its ninth race of the season. The 117-lap, 311-mile race here is scheduled for Saturday. Qualifying is slated for Friday evening.
Teams practiced on Thursday, with Trevor Bayne from Roush Fenway Racing posting the fastest overall lap at 190.378 mph. Smith's best lap in the first practice session was clocked at 184.590 mph, putting him 18th on the charts. Smith did not participate in the second and final session.
"The steering was a little quicker than I wanted to start out, but we made a steering box change, and it was a lot better," Smith said. "We were able to run with [JRM teammates] Kasey [Kahne] and Chase [Elliott] there, and I felt like all three of our cars were pretty equal."
In last year's Nationwide race at Talladega, Smith charged from eighth to first during a frantic last-lap around this 2.66-mile speedway. After pushing help from Kahne, Smith drove down the track and then passed several cars in the tri-oval area. He pulled ahead of Joey Logano by just inches for the lead when NASCAR officials displayed the caution flag for a major crash involving seven cars that occurred on the frontstretch.
It was the second career win in the series for Smith.
"Winning this race last year was certainly thrilling for me, especially the way it ended and going from about eighth place to first on the final lap," he said. "Obviously, there was chaos at the end, but it was exciting. It will always be one of my favorite moments when I look back."
The start of last year's race at Talladega was delayed more than three hours due to rain. It began at 5:18 p.m. local time, but NASCAR informed teams in the closing stages that it would be trimmed by 10 laps due to darkness approaching.
Smith enters this race second in the drivers' standings. He is 19 points behind Elliott, who is a rookie this season. Elliott won at Texas and Darlington before finishing second to Kevin Harvick in last Friday's race at Richmond. Harvick gave JRM its fourth victory of the season.
"It's pretty cool to see that we have separate teams that have won races and run up front," Smith said. "We've had a level of success so far this season."